“The Wrecker” (1843) by Charles J. Peterson (part 1)

zzMooncussers. Land Pirates. Wreckers. These iconic figures are the epitome of evil. They intentionally lure ships ashore for illegal plunder. Murder, deceit, and bloodcurdling knavery are the tools of their trade, and while their myth endures, especially in the wreck traps of yore (think: Cornwall, New Jersey, Cape Cod), the nefarious wrecker is a figment of the Romantic Imagination. A slew of historians–here’s the best yet–have searched high and low for real-life mooncussers and come up empty handed… well almost. Like any good figment of the Romantic Imagination, wreckers became staples of nineteenth century Atlantic World literature. Wrecker lit is pretty spectacular. I’d like to share a few of these salty tales on Ships on the Shore.

What follows is a classic retelling of a long-forgotten wrecker short story published serially in the Ladies’ National Magazine in July 1843. This one has it all — a raging storm “increasing in fury every hour,” a mysterious, desperate “solitary wayfarer,” an imperiled vessel, and… well you’ll just have to read it. Part one is transcribed below:

The Wrecker.

By Charles J. Peterson

The storm was at its height. During the whole day and part of the preceding night it had been blowing fiercely, increasing in fury every hour, until it now raged with an intensity rarely witnessed even on our hospitable Atlantic coast. The wind whistled shrilly over the flat beach, making the bare elder bushes rattle like dry bones and almost prostrating the solitary wayfarer, who stood, half sheltered by the low sand hill, gazing out over the white and troubled ocean. Whoever he might be he had chosen a singular hour for his watch. It was long after twilight, and, in the shadowy obscurity, the agitated ocean before him, with its dark billows tipped with foam, stretching away before the sight until lost in the gloom of the wild seaboard, had something ghastly in its aspect. A rack of leaden colored clouds drove across the firmament, stooping low down over the waters with a weird and threatening aspect.–They ran in mountains, and though the whole surface of the deep was spotted with foam, there was a white continuous line that never disappeared, just beneath the visible horizon, betokening the shoals on her coast. Further in the waves broke again; and a few yards from the watcher they were shivered for the third time, hurling themselves on the beach in ceaseless thunder. At first their dark bosoms could be seen heaving sullenly up against the black seaboard; then, all at once, a white line of foam, beginning at one end of the toppling wave, would run swiftly along the brow; the crest would curl over for an instant; and then the huge mass of water would plunge headlong, in a cataract of snowy spray, on the beach.–For a space the fragments of the wave would be seen shooting up the sand, and then as rapidly returning with the undertow. Another billow would now break with a concussion as loud as before, again the shattered wave would slide up the beach, and again the undertow would succeed.

But it was not to gaze on the sublimity of this scene that the solitary individual had taken post on that desolate beach. His eye ranged the horizon as if in search of some expected object, and at length he stooped forward, and shading his eyes with his hand, gazed intently across the white waste of waters, with a smile of savage, almost fiendish exultation came across his face.

‘Ay! there she is,’ he muttered, ‘I knew she could not escape, for I saw her in the offing an hour ago, I was sure. I have her now.–There has been but a poor trade in this winter; but this tall ship will make up for the bad times.’

He rubbed his hands as he spoke, and looked around, as if already contemplating the bales of rich silks which he expected to realize from the wreck; for well he knew that nothing short of a miracle could save the doomed ship, since she was already too nigh to be able to claw off the coast in the teeth of the northeaster. He then cast his eye upward to a light fixed on a heavy pole, on the summit of the low sand hill.

‘Ah it’s a trick I never knew to fail,’ said the wrecker, as if conversing with himself.–‘They think it the light off the Hook, and shape their course accordingly. Let me see,’ he continued, stopping a short space to think, ‘they will bear up a little, so they’ll come on a mile or two further down. Well, well, one place is as good as another. By morning’–

‘The crew will all be dead,’ said a harsh voice behind him, so unexpectedly that he started and looked around like one half expecting to see a spirit.

The wrecker’s fears, however, vanished when holding the lantern to the intruder he beheld a woman’s face. But it was seamed with exposure and age, and made more repulsive by the grizzled hair which hung like a Medusa’s snakes about it. She wore a man’s hat and pea-jacket.

It’s only me, Master Bowen, said she, ‘you needn’t be afeered. The devil will no doubt have you some day, but not yet, not yet. You haven’t murdered folks enough yet by luring them on here. But your time’s coming.’

A dark scowl settled on the wrecker’s brow at these words, while the veins of his forehead swelled like a whip-cord with suppressed passion.

‘What call you here, old beldame?’ he said sharply ‘I told you to say up at the hut,’ and noticing a leer in her eyes, he continued, abruptly changing his tone, ‘well–what have you seen to pay for our walk?’

‘Nothing, master, nothing. I haven’t long suspected. But enough,’ she added, smiling maliciously, ‘to make your neck not worth a farthing, if I speak out.’

The man regarded her, for an instant, with a scowling brow, and perhaps might be meditating whether he should not murder her; but the temptation passed away, or he thought proper to change his tactics.

‘Come, come, old Kate,’ he said, at length, ‘this won’t do. You and I have been together too long to fall out now. You’ve seen me do only what a dozen others along the coast have done, and what you’d do yourself if a good chance offered. Here, on the beach, all that comes ashore is ours, and, if the winter’s unlucky, we must take to our wits to make it more fortunate.’

“Ha! ha! old master,’ said the creature, changing her malicious laugh to one of seemingly unearthy jocularity, ‘there you’re right. I was only trying your nerves. What! old Kate tell on you. Not for all the fiends below. Besides,’ she added, and her voice lost some of the its harshness, as if a better feeling was struggling to break through her icy heard, ‘it’s all for Margy; all we get–all that falls to our lot, all that I pick up. Sweet child, I wish she would come back–when, did you say, she was to leave Charlestown?’

‘She was to have come home this winter, but I sent word for her to stay till summer. By that time I shall have left here, and I thought it best, on further consideration, that she should not return to this neighborhood.’

‘Oh! ay! I see it now. You will go to Philadelphia or York, as you’ve told me, and set up for merchant or gentleman. Well–its best. I can’t go; but I’ll come sometime and see Margy. She’s more like my own child than a stranger. It’s best she shouldn’t know the folks down here. But ha! look yonder–the ship will soon be on.’

(to be continued)

To access the article click here. For an earlier post about wreckers and wrecker lit — go here.

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Step #1: make the to-do list

FullSizeRenderFirst things first — figure out what needs to get done. I went old school with pen and paper, avoiding those fancy to-do list apps and hacks and what not. It’s a bit daunting and I suspect this revision-publication process will take longer than I hope (+/-6 months). Time will tell. The list is transcribed below.


1. Respond to comments and reach out to readers who contacted Ships on the Shore since March 2011

2. Update “About,” “Dissertation,” and “Links” pages.

3. Review and update “Blogroll”

4. Connect Ships on the Shore to new Twitter and LinkedIn (sure I want to do LinkedIn too?) accounts

5. Post with some regularity

Book: (yes, that’s right book — no longer dissertation!)

1. Print out copy and notate with suggestions from defense

2. line edit chapters 1, 2, and 5

3. separate third chapter into two chapters

a. Expand primary and secondary research United-States Life-Saving Service (USLSS) and federal activity on the early nineteenth-century coast

b. Expand primary and secondary research on the development of American coastal tourism

c. Draft, revise and edit chapters 3 and 4

4. Expand research on T.A. Scott and incorporate into marine salvage chapter

5. Rewrite introduction and conclusion

6. line edit manuscript

7. get help!! Plead/beg colleagues to read and offer suggestions on manuscript


1. lean something about the whole publishing game

2. find potential publishers

3. submit manuscript

4. wait, pray, learn, read

And we’re off…


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We’re Back! Shipwrecks, Coastal Landscapes, and “Watery Graves”

yAfter lying dormant for two years, Ships on the Shore is back!

I feel a little rusty coming out of the blocks but time has come to turn that dissertation I blabbered about for two years into a proper book. Ships on the Shore was central to successfully researching, writing, and defending my dissertation so I have high hopes that this blog and you dear reader will help me once again.

Ships on the Shore will document turning a concise dissertation into a publishable (fingers-crossed published) work of history. If you choose to follow us–and I hope you do–expect tales of shipwrecks past and present. Expect news of research finds big and small. Expect a little bit of grousing (if only because I have to work for a living now — long gone are those sweet fellowship-funded days). And expect–hopefully–a bit of celebrating as we complete the book and navigate the publishing process.

Please, please, please post comments or send me an email! Your thoughts, comments, insights, and suggestions are so much more helpful than I can express. If you like what you read, share Ships on the Shore with others. For those of you who sent a message since 2011 — I’ll be reaching out to you very soon. I’m truly looking forward to connecting.

But enough about me and you — let’s talk shipwreck.

The first wreck back had to be a good one and this 1835 shipwreck has it all — uncertainty, salvage, mystery, a snow storm, whale oil, and  “not a soul” escaping “a watery grave.”

xMelanchohly Wreck.–The schr. Herald at this port of Saturday, picked up, between Montaug and Point Judith, 5 casks of sperm oil, bearing the mark of the guager at Warren; the sloop Traveller also picked up one cask, and several other vessels, saw fragments of the wreck, a mattrass, and a part of the quarter deck of a vessel, between Watch Hill and Point Judith. About 1000 barrels of oil, of which this was supposed to be a part, was shipped last week at Warren, on board two sloops for New York. As they both left Newport on Tuesday last, it was impossible to judge which of them had been wrecked, until yesterday afternoon, when a gentleman arrived from Warren, and on inspecting the casks, unhesitatingly pronounced them the cargo of the sloop Eloisa, Capt. Smith, one of the above vessels. It is supposed she struck on Fisher’s Island Reef, during the snow storm on Wednesday night, and in all human probability, not a soul escaped a watery grave. -Providence Journal of Monday.”

Incidentally, it was wrecks like this that made New London, Connecticut a prime spot for salvage master T.A. Scott to set up shop in the 1870s. Scott was a remarkable character — for more start here.

~Article transcribed from the April 8, 1835 edition of the Barnstable Patriot is graciously made available by the lovely Sturgis Library located on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.




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The Party’s Over (for now)

I started this blog in the summer of 2011 to share my dissertation research and aggregate contemporary shipwreck news. It has been a fantastic experience–we were “freshly pressed” and nominated for the Liebster Award twice (thank you again J.D. and Patrick!). More important, I met a whole bunch of folks interested in shipwrecks, salvage and history. Many gave me a vital scrap of evidence or helped me see things in a new perspective. Thank you for taking the time to send me an email or post a comment–you made my dissertation better. 

But, as the estimable Willie Nelson once put it: “Turn out the lights, the party’s over. They say that all good things must end.” I’m happy to report that I successfully defended my dissertation, “The Shipwreck Shore: Marine Disasters and the Creation of the American Littoral,” last week. It’s been quite a process. I have a veritable boatload of suggestions and comments from my committee concerning how to turn my relatively concise dissertation into a proper book. But first I need some down time–let things percolate a bit–before embarking on the dissertation-to-book project. (I’m also on the job hunt–anyone out there need a hard-working historian?) Until then, Ships on the Shore will be on hiatus. Thanks for tuning in and keep an eye to windward for our return…


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Forgotten Wrecks: Schooner Sea Lion (1875)

Screenshot from 2013-03-04 09:24:41

Late winter/early spring was always a dangerous time for vessels as unsettled weather and frigid conditions contributed to dozens of shipwrecks. Today’s forgotten wreck brings us back to March 4, 1875, when the Boston Daily Journal printed:

Schooner Ashore

ROCKPORT, Mass, March 4. The schooner Sea Lion of Lockport, N.S. [Nova Scotia], Capt. McCanghev, from Clenfuagos for Portland, Me., loaded with molasses went ashore about 10:00 A.M. to-day, at Rockport. The crew were saved by the use of the mortar and life lines. If the storm abates the vessel and cargo may be saved.

The Sea Lion‘s wreck was one of a dozen wrecks reported in American newspapers on that days. Some involved loss of life, but the Sea Lion was representative of nineteenth century shipwrecks along the American coastline. Further particulars about the schooner surfaced over the next few days. According to the Boston Daily Journal of March 6th:

THE WRECK OF THE SCHOONER SEA LION. The schooner Sea Lion, from Cienfuegos for Portland, stranded on the beach at Rockport, Mass., reports having sighted land on the lee bow at 10 A.M. on Thursday during the storm, when an attempt was made to work her off shore, but it was soon made evident she would not go clear, and in order to save life and property, Captain McCanghey ran for the smoothest water and let go anchors, which failed to hold and the vessel was quickly driven ashore. All hands were rescued by means of the Massachusetts Humane Society’s Life Car. A line was thrown to the vessel by the mortar, by which a hawser was hauled to shore, and the life-car was transferred to the wreck and the mariners were pulled safely through the breakers to the land. From previous exposure the captain and crew suffered intensely from the cold and sleet. The captain’s hands were badly frost-bitten.

The survivors are desirous of expressing their heartfelt gratitude to the citizens of Rockport, who rescued them, and also to the Humane Society for their wise and generous act in placing life-saving apparatus at dangerous points along the coast. The wreck lies on a gravelly beach among many single rocks, on of which has been forced through her port bilge, breaking off her keelson and floor timbers. It is doubtful her hull will be worth saving. The cargo of molasses has been discharged and landed on the beach for shipment to its destination, under direction of Captain Moses B. Tower.

I haven’t been able to find any record of the Sea Lion‘s eventual fate, a typical ending for most shipwrecked vessels.

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